US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has denied rumours of a rift with Donald Trump, amid media reports he had called the president a "moron". "I'm not going to deal with petty stuff like that," he said, without denying the alleged remark.
Mr Tillerson called a news conference after an NBC report said he had considered resigning earlier this year. He said his commitment to Mr Trump's White House was as strong as ever, and he would stay on as long as needed.
Rex Tillerson was appointed by President Trump as the secretary of state on 1st February 2017. He is said to be the most trusted person in Trump’s administration. The relationship between the two men has remained tense for months. According to the Post, Trump and Tillerson have rammed heads over major policy issues, including the decision to send more troops to Afghanistan, and small annoyances, like the secretary's habit of not returning Trump's phone calls.
Trump has also been irritated by the fact that Tillerson has advocated for a more traditional approach to foreign policy, the Post reports. The secretary of state suggested a more diplomatic approach to North Korea and has voiced support for the U.S. to remain a party to the Iran nuclear deal.
Though Tillerson has denied the remarks made on him, Trump & the secretary of state have reportedly been frustrated with each other for months, and the President has appeared, at times, to undercut his top diplomat on foreign policy issues.
Over the weekend, after Tillerson had signalled that the U.S. had direct lines of communication with North Korea, Trump took to Twitter to say that Tillerson was "wasting his time" trying to open up a dialogue with Pyongyang.
NBC had alleged, citing White House sources, that Mr Tillerson had to be talked out of resigning in July. It said he had been advised by Vice-President Mike Pence "on ways to ease tensions" with the President, the report added - something which Mr Tillerson denies.
"The Vice President has never had to persuade me to stay as secretary of state, because I have never considered leaving this post," he said.
"I'm new to Washington, I have learned there are some who try to sow dissension to advance their own agenda by tearing others apart in an effort to undermine President Trump's own agenda. I do not and I will not operate that way."
Just before Mr Tillerson spoke, Donald Trump took aim at their report, tweeting: "NBC news is #FakeNews and more dishonest than even CNN. They are a disgrace to good reporting. No wonder their news ratings are way down!"
Speaking in Las Vegas later, where he was visiting victims of the mass shooting, Mr Trump said it was a "totally phony story... made up by NBC" and he had "total confidence in Rex."
State department spokeswoman Heather Nauert also later refuted the "moron" remarks, even though the secretary himself had not. "The secretary did not use that type of language to speak about the president of the United States," she said. "He does not use that language to speak about anyone."
The secretary of state said most of the right things, praising the President as smart and strong and denying he had to be talked out of resigning. He didn't, however, directly deny that he had referred to the president as a "moron".
President Trump insists the NBC story had been "fully refuted", but even if the details are adamantly denied by the White House, the reality is Mr Tillerson and the president frequently move in different directions on foreign policy.
On Sunday, Trump tweeted saying he had told his secretary of state that he was wasting his time attempting to negotiate with North Korea, just hours after Mr Tillerson had said the US was in contact with Pyongyang.
"Save your energy Rex, we'll do what has to be done!" Mr Trump publicly declared, in a move some pundits felt undermined the secretary's work.
Our assessment is that President Trump cannot afford to lose more of his key administration members. Trump may need Tillerson now more than he needs him. They should come to a common ground with their decisions instead of having different opinions on most of the issues. If the differences keep continuing the question may arise on whether he can effectively serve as the top US diplomat - and when he might head for the exit?